Be a Better Neighbor

Who doesn’t love a good campfire? This fascination with combustion is surely programmed into our DNA. Without it we should probably have died out long ago, overcome by those denizens of the animal kingdom that are faster, stronger, and wiser than we are.

It was intelligence, not wisdom, that allowed humanity to wield fire in a self-reinforcing feedback loop. Therein lies the story of our civilization. But it was wisdom, the exceedingly rare spice that makes the human experience palatable, which understood that fire must be carefully controlled and contained. Indeed, in that brief statement we have outlined the ebb and flow of human history from the first smoldering stump ignited by lightning, to the experimental iodine-based ion propulsion system, to the back yard barrel burning trash.

In the country, we burn some of our trash in barrels. In the not too distant past the practice made perfect sense for people in remote areas with no garbage pickup services. In modern times the practice continued for people who could ill afford to pay for pickup, or were of a frugal nature which made them reluctant to spend money on a problem they could resolve themselves. This is still true for some people today, and for people who just like to burn things.

I remember the distinctive smell of newspapers burning in a 55 gallon drum fashioned into a chimney in my grandparents yard. As a child it was a thrill and a privilege to be allowed to add paper to the fire and poke at it with a stick. I also remember the unmistakable smell of plastic milk jugs and egg cartons added to the blaze.

The grandparents didn’t know about the toxins released from the burning of plastic and other man made materials, toxins which can pollute air, ground and water. As late as the 1950’s, the general consensus on air and water pollution was, “The solution to pollution is dilution.”

We know better today, which is why it is remarkable to me when I’m driving through our area and catch a whiff of that unmistakable odor on the wind.

“There’s no law against it,” said an acquaintance, as the smoke from his barrel of burning plastic enveloped his home, and his wife, coughing and shooting arrows with her eyes, slammed the door shut. I’m not here today to suggest that there should be any more laws, especially here in the country where people live to be away from the nanny oversight of government and neighbors as well. Liberty, to me, allows people to experience the consequences of their own stupid choices, but since we can’t say “stupid” anymore, I’ll say “mentally underserved.” So, “burn baby, burn,” but if you’re my next door neighbor, you probably won’t be invited to the barbecue.

There is another familiar smoke which results from a favorite pastime of the codgerly, though my use of the term risks accusations of ageism and dooms me to become one of the same. It happens every year about this time, as the leaves fall and collect on the ground, that someone decides the best way to dispose of them is to create a large pile of slow burning, smoldering incense.

It’s almost a ritual for some of us, on a crisp fall morning, bright sun and blue sky just begging for a smudging. I’ve seen folks standing for hours in a meditative, almost transcendent state, watching the tiny blazes flicker and the thick white clouds stretching out in search of a breeze. On one afternoon recently, driving by the lake, it seemed as if multiple signal fires were sending encrypted messages to unknown recipients.

Again, I’m not going to suggest that there is any better solution to this problem than common sense and another increasingly rare quality: community spirit. For the codgerly among us, those who got that way through hard work and perseverance as well as those of us who achieved the state at an early age, perhaps some more information is all that is needed to keep the air in our valleys crisp and clean.

As a haven for the retired, we have a larger than average percentage of people who suffer from respiratory problems – allergies, asthma, COPD and emphysema. When a high pressure dome is sitting on top of us, producing those bright blue skies that we all love to see, the mixing height of any kind of smoke is going to be about head high. One pile of burning leaves is enough to drive indoors an entire neighborhood, and to cause respiratory distress for susceptible individuals a mile away.

It’s not a very neighborly thing to do. It’s also not necessary. From an ecological point of view, it’s even wasteful. Now, I’m not saying “ecological” to trigger the tough and independent but fragile among us who equate the word with “tree hugger” or some political pejorative. We’re talking about ecology in the context of people who enjoy seeing lightning bugs and butterflies, who put out bird feeders and like to watch the occasional chipmunk or squirrel. We’re talking “ecology” in the context of the rapidly diminished number and variety of insects among us, without which human life itself is at increasing risk.

There is a growing consensus in the scientific community that when it comes to our yards, the best practice for the chain of life that we both admire and upon which we depend, is to leave the leaves. Ideally, leave them just where they lay (they will be gone by spring) or cut them with a mulching mower. If you rake them, at least use them as compost around shrubs and perennials. Leaving the leaves creates habitat for beneficial insects. It adds organic material to the soil. It increases the survival chances for butterflies, salamanders, chipmunks, box turtles, toads, shrews and earthworms.

It makes you a better neighbor to all of us.

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